I mentioned a while ago that I was planning to finish my quest for childhood memories back in the motherland and here it is starting with the breakfast edition in two cities I call home – Ningbo and Shanghai. Notice the foods I love are mostly dough-based and ironically there’s not enough of that in my life.
The trick to getting your hands on the best and often the busiest street eateries is to queue early – let that be marked by the sound of the older generation working out at the crack of dawn. There’s nothing worse than the elders beating you to a steaming bowl of congee at 5 am. The early/old bird gets the worm.
A street stand with a variety of cooked dishes ready to be served
The heartiest meals are sometimes the simplest. Swamped with choices, my first on the list will always be Shanghai soup dumplings (buns).
One of Shanghai’s oldest delicacies, these petite steamed buns are best known for their thin skins holding in a miraculous amount of soup and filling. Think of it as tiny bowls of meat soup. The soup buns are sold all over the city but if you fancy going to a diner with a bit of history, I highly recommend a place called 南翔小笼馒头 originally built next to the City God Temple over 100 years ago. Depending on the popularity of the diner or restaurant, 4-8 buns per serving can cost you anywhere from 8-30 yuan.
A filling mixture of crab meat, roe and pork. Sacrificing a bun in the name of research.
A common mistake is biting into the dumplings without cooling it down first; let this guy show you a simple way to save the soup and avoid burning your mouth at the same time (skip to 3:15 – 5:20).
‘Don’t be poking holes at the top like a hooligan’.
Yes I did. While every last drop was savoured I’m not sure I could do the same for my dignity as both locals and tourists looked on in amusement. In reality the giant bun was nothing more than crab soup and a waste of 20 yuan.
Ordering a steaming bowl of tofu soup is an essential part of your Chinese breakfast experience, it’s lighter and healthier than the other deep fried options with a bonus of providing you with hydration and protein. Buy it in plain, savoury or sweet. Waking up to a bowl of this every morning is like opening your windows to let in some air – refreshing and essential.
Fried buns 生煎馒头
Savoury egg pancake with spring onion
Deep-fried spring roll filled with shredded potato
Another food I was brought up with was wonton. There are two different types, no fancy names, just the big ones and the little ones. The wontons are both served in a broth of dried shrimp, seaweed and coriander for you to add more vinegar/soy sauce/sesame oil at the table if you wanted.
The chefs have mastered the ‘squeeze and throw’ technique to make each little wonton in less than 2 seconds – tiny pieces of pork are placed into the centre of the wonton wrapper and they simply squeeze their hand and throw it onto a pile ready to boil. The bigger wontons require more of an arrangement folding and hold much more filling inside like shrimps and pork.
The little ones
The big ones
Lastly how can I forget to mention the breakfast buffets… No matter how below par your hotel is, you’re still guaranteed to eat your money’s worth the next morning. Say hello to the basic minimum of the following: eggs (in every way), noodles, buns, cake, watermelon, ice-cream, fried rice, dumplings, wonton, bacon, fish, give or take a few. There’s no need to limit yourself to a normal breakfast when anything goes here. Hotels are forever improving their services to meet the taste of international travellers to now include cereal and milk from cows and plants.